DOHA: U.N. cultural agency UNESCO granted its prized World Heritage status to a prehistoric cave in southern France Sunday, one renowned for containing the earliest known figurative drawings.
Delegates at UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee voted to grant the status to the Grotte Chauvet at a gathering in Doha, where they are considering cultural and natural wonders for inclusion on the U.N. list.
The cave in the Ardeche region, which survived sealed off for millennia before its discovery in 1994, contains more than 1,000 drawings dating back some 36,000 years to what is believed to be the first human culture in Europe.
“This artist has now been recognized,” said Pascal Terrasse, a lawmaker for the Ardeche. “May he forgive us for waiting 36,000 years.”
Terrasse has described the works preserved within Grotte Chauvet as the “first cultural act.”
French Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti called the cave “a major site for humanity” that provides an exceptional opportunity for study.
It is “a jewel whose emotional power is as strong today as when it was conceived,” she said.
UNESCO said the Grotte Chauvet “contains the earliest and best-preserved expressions of artistic creation of the Aurignacian people, which are also the earliest known figurative drawings in the world.
“The large number of over 1,000 drawings covering over 8,500 square meters, as well as their high artistic and aesthetic quality, make Grotte Chauvet an exceptional testimony of prehistoric cave art.”
The opening of the cave, located around 25 meters underground, was closed off by a rockfall 23,000 years ago.
It lay undisturbed until it was found by three French cave experts and almost immediately declared a protected heritage site in France.
“Its state of preservation,” UNESCO said, “and authenticity, is exceptional as a result of its concealment over 23 millennia.”
Access has since been severely restricted and fewer than 200 researchers a year are allowed to visit the cave, which stretches into several branches along about 800 meters and at its highest reaches 18 meters.
The paintings in Grotte Chauvet became an unlikely pop culture commodity in 2010, when German filmmaker Werner Herzog released his 3D film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Y0guHHDN5Q) which documents his tour of the cave network.
The painted images include representations of human hands and of dozens of animals, including mammoths, wild cats, rhinos, bison, bears and aurochs.
The paintings are more than twice as old as those in the famed Lascaux caves also in southern France and more discoveries are expected to be found in remote parts of the cave as yet unexplored.
The cave also includes remnants and prints of ancient animals, including those of large cave bears that are believed to have hibernated at the site.
Researchers believe the cave was never permanently inhabited by humans “but was instead of a sacred character” and “used for shamanist ritual practice.”
With the cave itself closed to the public, authorities are building a full-scale replica of the site nearby, which is expected to open in the spring of 2015.
The Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization oversees the system of granting coveted World Heritage Site status to important cultural and natural sites.
Obtaining the status for sites is a point of pride for many nations and can boost tourism, but it comes with strict conservation rules.
UNESCO delegates are meeting for 10 days in Doha to consider the inscription of 40 sites on the World Heritage List and issue warnings over already-listed locations that may be in danger.
Other sites given the status this year include a vast Inca road system spanning six countries and ancient terraces in the West Bank that are under threat from the Israeli separation barrier.